When a couple has been married for a long time, they are often asked “what is the secret to a happy marriage?” (The Today show had a good segment on this topic last week!) We all want to know what it takes to be in a loving and happy long-term marriage. On the topic of giving to each other in a relationship, well yes, giving is crucial for a happy and healthy marriage. The tricky part of giving is that what you may give to your partner may not be what they need. But what I am referring to in this post is about how too much giving can cause harm to you and your relationship. It creates an imbalance within you which is reflected in your relationship.
Let me explain – some time ago, I was working with a woman who was in the process of healing from being hurt by her husband (actually, they had hurt each other and both acknowledged this to be true). Both were willing participants in the healing process. But she shared with me how she felt distrusting when they were not together. I asked her, “What makes you feel connected to your husband when you are apart?” She abruptly replied “Nothing”, even though he reached out to her through the day by texting her to say hello, to see how she was doing and to let her know he was thinking of her. When I asked her why that didn’t help her feel connected to him, she said in an agitated and frustrated tone “I’m at work, I’m busy”. And she worried that taking time to text her would take him away from taking care of the children while she was at work. We continued our conversation as she shared with me how busy she was at work, and at home as well – taking care of her children. At one point I used the word “depleted” and she immediately began to tear. I asked her why she was tearing and she responded by saying that she was depleted but simply hadn’t recognized it. The reason that she could not feel connected to her husband was because she could only feel what one normally feels when they are depleted … resentment and anger.
I wrote about being depleted in another blog post regarding how life’s challenges can take a toll on our relationship. In this blog, I am referring to the balance of giving and receiving in relationship as well as taking care of you (giving to oneself).
I have (in a past session) encouraged my client to take some time for herself when she comes home from work; rather than walking in the door and interacting with her family when she has nothing left to give them after a challenging day at work. I encouraged her to take 20 or 30 minutes to herself. She said that this would make her feel guilty. But I suggested to her that her family would enjoy her more if she were refreshed and replenished by taking the time. She continued to struggle so I shared part of my story with her in the hope that it would help with her guilt.
I shared with her that I remember when my children would be waiting at the door for me when I came home from work. I worked long days and got home very late. I missed my children when I was at work while at the same time I felt like I had nothing left to give to them when I got home, which made me feel awful. I knew that all I needed was 20 or 30 minutes for myself to replenish so that I could give a bit more of myself to my children. But I would feel so terribly guilty. How could I possibly ask for more time away from my children when I felt that I was giving so little of myself to them on a workday? However, when my son was an adult, he once said to me, “When you came home from work when I was a teen and I shared my day with you, I felt like you were not really that interested.” Ouch! And yet I was grateful that he could share with me how he felt. And I learned that he sensed my depletion even though I tried my best to be present. So I encourage people to take 20 or 30 minutes to themselves, if needed, when they come home from work – even if they feel guilty. I suggest that if you are refreshed and replenished by taking time for you, your family will enjoy you more. Most spouses will understand that if you take time for yourself when you need it, you will be able to be more present (emotionally) with your family.
Additionally I asked her what she does to “fill her tank”, meaning what does she do to take care of herself so that she doesn’t get to the place of feeling depleted. She described that she didn’t have the time. Work takes much of her time, and she wants to give to her family when she is home. She wants to spend individual time with her children as well as together time with her family. She wants to spend time with her husband as well. She wants to be there for her family. But she now recognizes that she does not give to herself. That does not mean that her husband does not do kind and giving things for her; he does. But all of us need self-care.
Too much giving to others will leave anyone feeling depleted and, therefore, resentful and angry.
Think about imbalances this way: if you over-water or under-water your garden, your garden will not grow, or it will die, over-eating causes us to be sick, too much isolating vs. being with others leaves us feeling lonely, too much feeling not balanced with logic will lead to feeling emotionally out of control. Anything that is ‘out of balance’ in nature, life, anything……..will have a negative consequence.
The negative impact on your relationship is that you will not feel loving, connected, and close to those you love.
If I find that a person continues to struggle with finding time for themselves because it would leave them feeling guilty, I can usually help them understand that “giving to oneself is also giving to those you love”. If you provide self-care and self-nurturing, you will be happier, more content, peaceful, and in a more positive frame of mind rather than feeling resentful and angry. Even if you try to hide your resentment and anger, believe me, (as I later learned) those around you can feel it. The balance of giving and receiving in relationships will create a deepened sense of connection. Remember though, I am also referring to giving to you.
So what is self-care? What does it look like? Well, it is different for everyone, some say that it is going out with a friend, pampering oneself and having alone time. For others, it is gardening, reading a book, and /or playing anything, having fun. So discover what it is that nurtures you (men too) and do it for you and those that you love. You and your relationship will benefit in ways that you can hardly imagine!
Details of the stories told in my blog have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski @flicker.com